Hiring People with Conviction Histories Benefits Everyone

Nazish Dholakia Senior Writer
Sep 07, 2022
People attend a job fair in Detroit, Michigan, with employers who have expanded their hiring practices to include people with conviction histories.

When Marcus Bullock finally landed a job, it all came down to one question on the application: “Have you been convicted of a felony within the last seven years?” Having been convicted more than eight years ago, he could finally check the “No” box.

Bullock had already been rejected from more than 40 other jobs because of his conviction history before he started working at a paint store in 2004. A year later, he founded his own painting company. And in 2012, he launched Flikshop, an app that makes it easier for people to send postcards to incarcerated loved ones. Over the years, he’s hired many other people who were formerly incarcerated.

“I understood that there were amazingly brilliant people there, people who I knew would come home and crush it,” Bullock said. “So now when I'm home, and I’m able to now employ some of the brilliant folks that are coming out of those cells, it’s such a win.”

But Bullock’s plight securing employment is not uncommon. Roughly one in three adults in the United States—more than 70 million people—have criminal records. These records often make their and their families’ lives more difficult on multiple fronts—and for years to come. One of the biggest hurdles is landing a job, given the stigma and hiring discrimination people with criminal records face.

A conviction not only makes it harder for someone to find a job, but it also means that when they do, the work is more likely to be temporary, part-time, and low paying. Their conviction, even for a minor offense, stays with them, leading to a lifetime of lower wages. A study by the Brennan Center for Justice found that people who have been in prison earn half as much as those who have not. A conviction history is “a perpetual drag on the earning potential of tens of millions of Americans,” the report noted.

Research has long demonstrated that having a job decreases the likelihood that someone will return to prison—meaning creating and expanding employment opportunities for people with conviction histories actually leads to safer communities. More than 95 percent of people in prison eventually leave prison, but the discrimination they face means that they are much more likely to experience homelessness, to be rearrested, and to be reincarcerated—which is counterproductive to advancing public safety.

Employers take note

Now, amid a tight labor market, employers are increasingly relying on this “huge, largely ignored labor pool.” Companies are realizing that expanding employment opportunities for people with conviction histories makes sense for a lot of reasons. Villara Building Systems, which manufactures heating and plumbing systems, started hiring people with conviction histories when demand for personnel spiked during the recent boom in residential construction.

Recognizing the bias people with conviction histories encounter, workplace messaging software company Slack launched Next Chapter in 2018 to “generate new opportunities in skilled long-term employment in the technology sector for people reentering the community.” The program has since expanded to 14 companies, including Dropbox, PayPal, and Zoom, among others.

And formerly incarcerated people are spearheading many of these efforts. Bullock, for example, launched the Flikshop School of Business (FSB) in 2016. With investments from Boeing, Delta Airlines, and Bank of America, FSB offers training in tech and entrepreneurship to formerly incarcerated people to help them secure employment.

“The Flikshop of tomorrow is not only helping to support family members, but also employers who are being thoughtful about their hiring practices,” said Bullock. He’s working to leverage Flikshop’s platform to help employers connect with people in prison.

Diane Good-Collins’s efforts have already met with huge success. She’s led Metropolitan Community College’s (MCC) 180 Re-entry Assistance Program (180 RAP) in Omaha, Nebraska, since she helped start it in 2015. The program now has an ever-expanding network of more than 200 employers in the Omaha area, many more than the handful they started with seven years ago. In the first six months of this year, its job center served 968 people, and successfully placed 93 percent of them in jobs. Vera works with MCC on its college-in-prison program, and its reentry program is a strong example of how colleges can support formerly incarcerated students on campus.

“If we just invest in people, you just don’t know [what’s possible]. Somebody took a chance on me, and thank God they did,” said Good-Collins, who was incarcerated and whose first job after prison was at MCC, 19 years ago.

Legislative change

Elected officials are also increasingly taking action. Since 2018, at least seven states have adopted “clean slate” laws, which clear a range of convictions from the public record after a certain period. These laws represent a promising shift in helping remove barriers to jobs and housing. Pennsylvania was the first to pass a clean slate law, and since then, states including Utah, Michigan, and, most recently, Colorado, have passed similar laws.

Thirty-seven states and more than 150 cities and counties, as well as federal agencies and contractors, have also adopted Ban the Box laws, which eliminate questions about conviction history on job applications. But these moves mean very little if employers continue to reject candidates with conviction histories if they learn of them at a later stage in the hiring process. And there are still thousands of licensing laws—the National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Conviction lists more than 16,000—that bar people with conviction records from pursuing work in certain fields, ranging from cosmetology to social work. Pushes to change these laws have been met with some success.

A conviction history should not be a life sentence to poverty and joblessness. Companies may be expanding job opportunities to people with conviction histories out of necessity, but this shift should outlast any labor shortage. And more states should pass clean slate laws, which can create opportunities for millions of people in the United States. Expanding employment opportunities to people with conviction histories helps them, their families, employers, and the economy. It benefits us all.

“There’s a ton of brilliance that’s hiding in those cells,” Bullock said while speaking on a panel in June at the Aspen Ideas Festival. “What they do lack is social capital and opportunity. And if we figure out a way to unlock those two things, then I think we have a pathway to success for most of these men and women.”